There is only one King of Dragon Pass. A-Sharp’s self-billed “story-telling game” will be fifteen years old this autumn, a grey eminence in the world of video games. There is nothing like it in the world: a game with a smoothly telescopic scale that alternates seamlessly between fantasy empire-builder and character-driven RPG. Your leadership of your tribe of refugees in Dragon Pass depends in one moment on your ability to wage war and allocate scarce resources — in the next moment, it will be a whispered word to a grieving widow or the clever settlement of a petty feud that proves your worth.
First released for PC in 1999, King of Dragon Pass is old enough to remember the Clinton presidency, the Mir space station, and a world where renting a movie meant getting in the car and going to Blockbuster. Six numbered Final Fantasy games have come out since King of Dragon Pass launched. The Halo franchise started the fight, finished the fight, then started the fight all over again within the span of KoDP’s existence. In all that time, no one has attempted to duplicate it, not even its creators.
“To me, the strength of King of Dragon Pass is the stories,” King of Dragon Pass producer David Dunham told me. “So the more stories, the better. And in many cases, I think the specific stories make the game better.”
There’s never been a King of Dragon Pass sequel, and there really doesn’t need to be. On one level of the game, you have the strategy gamer’s familiar bird’s-eye view of the world: exploring, building your settlement, and courting (or antagonizing) the tribes with whom you share the Pass. But the more intimate level of KoDP is the stories that Dunham refers to. Every season brings a new personal decision that you and your tribe’s council (the clan ring) must make. Families who demand recompense for fallen warriors, demands for politically sensitive divorces, and more besides: from the mundane to the supernaturally weird.
These stories are told through fully illustrated scenes, which Dunham has revealed number in the hundreds. There’s so many scenes, and they can play out so variably that KoDP is every bit as replayable as games that rely on procedural generation for their variety. King of Dragon Pass isn’t a car model that needs renewing every year — it’s an edifice that you can keep adding on to. The game’s visual style will never age, its control scheme will never feel dated. It’s timeless.
“I have grandiose ideas to do over two dozen new scenes,” Dunham told me. “When we did the 2.0 update, we went through what we had and realized that while you might have a poet on the ring, there was only one scene involving other poets. That seemed like a major omission, so Elise Bowditch and I each wrote another poetry scene.”
That new scene will be arriving in an update that Dunham & Co. are working on for the iOS version of King of Dragon Pass, the 2011 edition that breathed new life into a game that had been hard to find for PC for years. Even though Dunham is now a core member of Battle of the Bulge makers Shenandoah Studio, I’d be willing to be that this next update isn’t the last one we’ll see for King of Dragon Pass. Why have you stuck with it, I asked Dunham? “It’s a fun game to work on.”